Getting Ahead in Business: What Do They Want?
When I was in my twenties, the world of course was different than today. We were more concerned with just staying alive and getting a job done. The prevailing notion at the time was that hard work would be rewarded appropriately and we would be elevated in our company and in society in general as a result (in other words, planning ahead for a move into the executive suites was not a consideration). This approach worked for some of us, although in my case, I had to leave the confines of the company and the organizational structure to get ahead.
Nowadays, the younger generation, coming into the work force, is already eyeing the corporate penthouses and is not shy about stating it publicly. How do I know? I just spent the summer with recent college graduates starting out in a number of different companies and the most frequent question I was asked, as an elder in the industry, is “what do I need to do to get ahead in business?” Last year I heard the same type of questions: “what are the managers looking for us to have?” “What will get us promoted?”
So I decided to seek out the answer. I knew what I thought to be the answer, but I wanted to see what the managers and executives of today are really looking for. I asked the executives I worked with, and the managers. I asked recruiters and my fellow consultants. Then I distilled the responses to four basic traits. It wasn’t hard. Most of the conversations came to the same conclusions whether talking to my generation of semi-retired executives or the succeeding generation of mid- to senior level managers. And those who varied in their answers did not vary too far from the mainstream.
Here are the four traits or skills that you need to become noticed by upper level management in your organization or other organizations in the order of importance:
- Verbal Communication (influence)
- Written Communication (organization)
- Execution (discipline)
- Performance (follow through)
Fortunately, all of the four traits of skills are learnable. You don’t have to be born with an innate ability to influence or write well. Even discipline can be learned. And all four can be perfected, or at least improved considerably, through practice. The more you write, the more proficient you become at writing and the organization of thought that goes with writing well. The more follow through you exhibit, the greater your overall performance will be, and as your good performance becomes more visible, the more follow through you will exhibit, and so forth. Underlying all four traits is the concept of confidence.
So what are we really talking about? Let’s look at each of the four traits along with some simple ways you can acquire or improve each of them.
Verbal Communication (influence)
The most often cited skill for those thinking about moving up in the organization is that of verbal communication. Managers, clients, executives, and everyone appreciates someone who can put together their ideas in a logical, compelling fashion and present these ideas verbally. Business analysts are constantly engaged in verbal communication: facilitating meetings, asking questions, eliciting information, making presentations, and so forth. Verbal communication includes the following:
- Expressing your ideas and position in a meeting setting
- Conducting a formal presentation to various levels of the organization
- Giving a status or other report to a group of peers, managers or upper level management
- Influencing another party or other parties to adopt a particular plan of action
- Negotiating or mediating conflict
- And so forth
Underlying the ability to put together words in a meaningful fashion in front of an audience (one or more people) is the concept of influence. Influence is getting people to do something without the exertion of authority. If you can demonstrate the ability to influence, you also demonstrate your ability to communicate verbally: with purpose, intention, logic and appropriate emphasis. People who have the ability to successfully influence those around them are in big demand in the executive suites and are in little supply. There are few classes, if any, in “Influence 101” in university, even in MBA programs.
How can you gain or improve this trait?
- You can increase your knowledge of public speaking by joining Toastmasters or any organization in which speaking, as in meetings for example, is a focal point of the activities.
- Actively solicit feedback from those around you. Ask if you have been understood and if not, why not.
- Be more aware of how your words affect others by observing the body language reactions of the listeners.
- Overcome your fears of speaking in public by taking small steps. In each meeting make an effort to ask at least one question or make at least one comment.
- Instead of writing a text or a tweet or even an email, talk to the correspondent verbally over the phone, or in person. Practice your verbal interchanges.
Just focusing on your verbal skills will bring about an improvement, and with that improvement you will gain confidence and then more improvement.
You know you are on the right track when management asks you to make the presentation at meetings.
Written Communication (Organization)
Second only to verbal communication is written communication. In the Internet age many people forget that most communication is still written, especially in business. Upper level management is always on the look out for staff members who can put words together in written form. Business analysts write a lot. They write requirements, memos, business cases, project charters, reports, debriefs, decision papers, and so on. While verbal communication has the impact of emotion and personal influence, the impact may fade and die a short time after utterance, written communication is persistent and may last forever, whether on paper or in bits. I may be able to deny saying something or claim misunderstanding of a verbal dialog, but my there is non-repudiation in my written words. And that is all writing, not just formal reports or contracts. This includes:
- Formal written reports
- Written proposals both formal and informal
- Business cases and other decision papers
- Informal written reports
- And just about anything you have written that is shared with anyone in the organization
Behind the words, however, lurks another trait that shines through: organization. Writing success requires organized thought. A person who writes well demonstrates an ability to organize his or her thoughts well enough to render those thoughts into meaningful words and sentences so that other people can read and understand. This is a different skill than verbal communication. There are many who can write well but not put two words together meaningfully in front of an audience or even an individual. And there are those who can express their thoughts well standing on their feet but have no concept of how to put those same words on the page.
The organization skills which support writing skills do not go unnoticed by those in the executive suites. Those who write well recognize good writing, in fact everyone does: the clarity of thought, the use of the precisely correct word, getting your point across in fewer words (concision), and arranging sentences in a way that is easy to understand by your audience. One of the easier ways to gain recognition is to write well. Your verbal communication has a limited audience; your written communication does not.
How do you become a better writer?
- Read more. Read what successful writers have written (fiction, non-fiction, essays, articles, etc.). You will begin to hear the rhythms of their sentences and paragraphs and it will work its way into your writing.
- Ask for feedback specifically on grammar and sentence construction. The rules of grammar we were taught in school are designed to help us write clearly and others understand our writing.
- Think about what you are writing before you write it and review it afterwards, even tweets, texts, and emails. The act of correcting a grammatical error will imprint the correction in your mind and you will be less likely to make that error in the future.
- Take notes in every meeting and purposefully rewrite your notes into a report for yourself (you don’t have to show it to anyone).
- And, over all other recommendations: to become a better write, write more.
Just as your Facebook pictures and posts can be read by recruiters and others, and you have heard stories about people losing jobs because of inappropriate Facebook postings, what you write and how you write it are also reflections of you as a person and a business analyst or whatever position you currently have or wish to attain. If you want to get ahead, pay attention to what you write. As you begin to write better you will gain confidence in your ability to write well and that will spur you to writing more.
You know you are on the right track when management asks you to provide a written summary of a meeting or project, especially an executive summary.
There are those who talk a good game, both verbally and in writing, but never seem to get anything done. You may know people like that. There are those who are great at recognizing a problem, and even coming up with the perfect solution and then they consider their job done and go off to something else. Business Analysis is all about solving business problems for the organization. And the problem is not solved until the solution is being used in the business environment. In the end there is a job that needs to get done.
The ongoing and seemingly everlasting debate about the value of university degrees is an example. Putting aside all the education and social aspects of college, to management of a company having the degree designation behind your name shows that you have the persistence and determination to complete the four to eight years of school work and complete the job, and the degree is proof. And persistence and determination are valuable traits in the work environment. I’m using the word ‘discipline’ to represent the persistence, determination, stamina, and focus necessary at times to get the job done despite interruptions, distractions, diversions, and the siren calls of emails, tweets, unfinished online games, Google, etc. The successful business analyst and the one being tracked by senior management is the one who shows that determination and discipline by having a reputation for successfully completing jobs.
After noticing you through your writing and verbal communication, management looks to see if you can do what you say you can do. Do you complete the work? Do you get it done on time? Do you keep your promises, even when such promises are only implied? Are you a person of your words?
How do you gain a reputation for execution?
- Obviously by executing. If you are not able to get ‘into the groove’ or the ‘flow’, practice doing so.
- Reduce distractions.
- When you find yourself drifting and engaging in activities that lead you away from executing, stop, take a breath, and refocus.
- Some people find meditation helps to increase their overall focus, even meditating a few minutes during the day when the ‘noise’ gets too invasive.
- Become consciously aware of how often you find excuses to avoid doing something you find boring, tedious, or unchallenging.
As you pay attention to what keeps you from completing a job or task, you will discover that your ability to focus and execute will improve automatically. As your focus increases, so will your confidence that you can execute jobs that are assigned to you and you will find yourself volunteering for more jobs which in turn increases your confidence. (Be careful not to overbook and end up not completing anything).
You know you are on the right track when managers come to you to get things done or call you in to pick up the ball dropped by someone else.
Performance (Follow through)
You buy a new car and drive it off the lot. It runs well and you are delighted with the car’s execution and the dealer who sold it to you. However, after a few hundred miles of driving the car begins to exhibit suspicious traits: engine cuts out at inopportune times, brakes squeal, exhaust goes from colorless to dark black. You determine that the performance of the car is less than stellar. You then evaluate the performance of the dealership based on how well the dealership responds to the problems your car is exhibiting.
So it is with a project or the result of a project. In the end, how the product performs over the long run will be the measure of the product’s value to the organization, and the measure of the value of those who delivered the product. The successful business analyst follows through with the commitment to solve the business’ problem by making sure that the solution works well in operation and continues to work well. The successful business analyst assumes that the solution may not be perfect and seeks out ways to improve the solution once it is in operation. Upper level management notices the business analyst’s attention to value of performance and the business analyst’s focus on ensuring the long-term success of the solution.
How do you increase your focus on performance?
- By taking the project lessons learned or retrospective sessions seriously.
- Perform a lessons learned on your work whether the project manager calls for it or not.
- Act on the suggested improvements that come up during such sessions so that your personal performance and that of the team improves with each succeeding project or sprint.
- Seek out those who might be against the project or the product or who may be critical of what was done and find out why they feel that way.
- Continuously ask Goethe’s three critical questions:
What did I (we) do?
Was it done well?
Was it worth doing?
Consider the situation of completing a successful project and then taking a new position in another company, or even in the same organization. What will your legacy at the previous position be based on? Your relationship with your team members (who themselves may have moved on)? The beauty of your written requirements? Your negotiation ability during the never ending project meetings? No. Your legacy is the result of the successful project. You can take pride in pointing to systems or solutions that you worked on that are still in operation, generating value for the organization, years after you have left. As you recognize and publicize your success in adding durable value to the organization you will gain confidence in your ability as a business analyst which in turn will result in better solutions.
You know you are on the right track when management introduces you as one of the prime movers behind a system or solution that is bringing benefits to the organization.
As I said in the first paragraph, there was a notion that doing good work would be noticed and rewarded in its own right. Unfortunately that is not always so. In all the rush and stress of everyday business, managers may overlook the quiet, competent worker who always gets the job done. While there is a lot to be said for the concept of “doing a good job is reward in itself”, this article is for those who are seeking to move up or ahead. Excelling in any one of the four traits will draw positive attention from above. Excelling in all four puts you on the fast track to the executive suite, at least according to the executives I talked to.
Each of the four traits is linked by confidence: confidence in yourself and in your actions. As you gain confidence in one area or trait, that confidence flows over to assist you in improving another trait. You may choose to improve the trait that you are most comfortable with, such as speaking, or you may choose to focus on the one that you feel is most in need of improvement. It doesn’t matter. You can choose to focus on one trait a month and repeat the focus three times a year. Or you can focus on the trait that brings you the most positive feedback from management and peers. Any improvements in any of the four traits increase your chances of moving up in the organization.
In the end, improving your knowledge, skills and abilities in verbal communication, written communication, execution, and performance contributes to your overall confidence. Confidence in yourself and what you do is a compelling prerequisite to success in business.
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